State of social emergency: Jennifer Duval-Smith on the importance of digital crisis management

  • Opinion
  • May 15, 2013
  • Jennifer Duval-Smith
State of social emergency: Jennifer Duval-Smith on the importance of digital crisis management
Wajahat Mahmood via Flickr

In a communications crisis, speed kills and nothing speeds like social media. It acts as a vector, amplifying the scale and velocity of damage. Your preparedness to identify and deal effectively with a reputational crisis online will determine the extent of the long term damage sustained by your business. But 72 percent of companies rated their preparedness for social media criticism as average or below average in a recent study by Ethical Corporation. So, what can you do to come out the other side intact?

Traditional issues management doesn’t allow for the public’s thirst for knowledge and impressive ability to self-inform via social networks. But you do need to allow for it and to be prepared to feed it. Put social communications planning first.

Remember the five key elements in digital crisis management: 

1. Speed – the first 24 hours are critical

Gone in 60 seconds: Bad news spreads faster than ever as it gets shared via our personal online profiles. It’s a short trip from Twitter to the Herald. When you are responding to an emerging crisis you’ll need to act within hours not days. For this, you’ll need a pre-aligned team and approach with escalation and approval processes in place.

Heed warnings: Despite what your board may think, you can’t communicate yourself out of an issue you have sleepwalked into. Crises can erupt without warning but rarely do. Your personal alerts come from multiple operational sources across the business. Common firestarters include poorly handled customer service, social campaigns gone wrong, product failure, non-compliance, natural events, ethical breaches and, lately, executive ‘memory loss’. 

Know what the horizon looks like: If you’ve got comprehensive monitoring in place you’ll know if you’ve got a spike, a negative trend, or ‘business as usual’. In crisis you need a comprehensive picture of all consumer-generated media, not just traditional media. This set-up takes time. 

Crises happen on weekends: Engagement happens after hours and so do crises. The Counties Manukau Police Facebook page was recently flooded with obscenity and outrage following the injury of a young girl during a party gone wrong. Alerts, monitoring and moderation have to happen after hours too, especially in an ‘issues rich’ environment.

2. Hypertransparency

Don’t count on keeping a secret:In our small and hyperconnected environment, private conversations are frequently made public and it always pays to ask yourself how you would fancy your words appearing on the front page of stuff.co.nz or whaleoil.co.nz before you click send.

Clean up your act: Fill the holes or be ready to explain why you didn’t. If you’re a public organisation whose entire reputation hinges on data security and you’ve been warned about a gap in that fence, address this as a matter of priority beforePublic Address blogger Keith Ng walks in to your kiosk with his USB stick. 

Address negative perceptions directly: If there is a negative perception around your organisation, even a minor breach will be amplified in view of your history.  Address this perception in your wider communications programmes. Be ready to reconcile any contradictory business practices and ensure that any corporate social responsibility initiatives are sincere and defensible.

3. Dialogue is as important as message delivery 

Get ready for two way dialogue: Many a community manager has sat watching their feeds explode while executives dither on messaging and sign-off.  Scripted messages simply won’t fly. Your ability to respond comes down to preparation, robust engagement and moderation guidelines and a pretty basic process of identifying likely doomsday scenarios. It also relies on your organisation’s trust and confidence in the individuals manning your social profiles.

@theboss needs to get it: Few chief executives are as comfortable taking to Twitter themselves as Ford’s Scott Monty, but your senior executives need to be sufficiently educated to understand the negative implications of radio silence in social media.  

4. Your reputation will be made or broken in search: 80 percent of internet users start their session at search. Search is very sensitive to social media content. Once those results are on your front page they can be very hard to dislodge, reminding potential customers of your unfortunate event for months. 89 percent of us have decided not to make a purchase based on user generated content, so a proactive content strategy is crucial to ensure positive, fresh and dynamic content arrives in your natural search results regularly.

5. Your opponents have the same tools you do: While well-resourced direct attacks or ‘hacktivism’ are not yet common in New Zealand, your detractors are increasingly resourceful and just as able to harness social power as you are. Greenpeace’s 'Let’s Go' hoax hijacked Shell’s 'Artic Ready' campaign spectacularly, using all the sharing power of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. ‘Social campaigns gone wrong’ are an enthralling modern spectator sport, fuelled by schadenfreude, and it pays to consider how your campaigns could be used against you. 

Next steps? 

  • Get buy-in at the top on the importance of social media in a crisis (there are many articles attesting to the impact of a PR crisis on stock price).
  • Set up adequate social media monitoring today.
  • Add a digital chapter to your crisis communications plan. 
  • Identify 2-3 likely crises and roleplay through the communication process. Plan how and where you will speak online. 
  • Identify the top online influencers for your business and start building relationships today. 
  • Jennifer Duval-Smith is executive director of Social@Ogilvy. @jduvalsmith.
  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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